How a Shellfish-Heavy Feast Helped Create Conservative Judaism in America

Jan. 18 2018

Last weekend, a Jewish group in San Francisco engaged in a reenactment of the so-called treyfa banquet that took place in Cincinnati in 1883. Held to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations—the predecessor to today’s Union of Reform Judaism—the original event received its nickname because of the variety of non-kosher (in Yiddish, treyf) food served there, which created something of a scandal. But reporting on the more recent festivities has gotten the facts of the original event wrong; Jonathan Sarna sets the record straight:

The original treyfa banquet . . . capped ceremonies aimed, ironically, at unifying American Jews. . . . It symbolized the longstanding goal of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, president of [America’s first rabbinical school] Hebrew Union College, to lead a broad, ideologically diverse coalition committed to strengthening American Judaism.

Unlike this month’s reenactment, the infamous Cincinnati banquet prepared for the 100 Jewish leaders served no pork at all. Many Reform Jews of that time believed that abstaining from pork sufficiently distinguished them from their non-Jewish neighbors. . . . So Jews avoided pork products, even if they consumed [non-kosher] seafood.

The many non-kosher foods that did appear on the menu of the lavish nine-course banquet—clams, crabs, shrimp, frogs’ legs, and so forth—were not . . . the product of careful planning and prearranged advertising. They resulted instead from carelessness and lack of proper oversight. The well-known Jewish caterer who planned the dinner took no account of the fact that traditionalists had been invited to the celebration and created a banquet like so many other lavish Jewish banquets held in his club—akin to non-Jewish banquets, minus the pork. . . .

Wise also knew the banquet was a blunder. After all, he himself kept a kosher home—his second wife, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, insisted upon it. But he was not the kind of leader who believed in making apologies. Instead, he lashed out against his critics, insisting that the dietary laws had lost all validity, and ridiculed them for advocating “kitchen Judaism.”

The treyfa banquet helped pave the way for the creation of a more traditional Jewish rabbinical seminary, New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, [now the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism]. Once Wise abandoned the goal of “union” and cast his lot with more radical Reform Jews who repudiated Jewish dietary laws, those favoring a conservative approach to Jewish life moved to establish a more religiously traditional seminary to compete with Hebrew Union College.

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: American Jewish History, American Judaism, History & Ideas, Jewish Theological Seminary, Kashrut, Reform Judaism

The Impossibility of Unilateral Withdrawal from the West Bank

Feb. 19 2019

Since throwing his hat into the ring for the Israeli premiership, the former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz has been reticent about his policy plans. Nonetheless, he has made clear his openness to unilateral disengagement from the West Bank along the lines of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, stating the necessity of finding “a way in which we’re not controlling other people.” Gershon Hacohen argues that any such plan would be ill-advised:

The political and strategic precepts underlying the Oslo “peace” process, which Gantz echoes, vanished long ago. The PLO has unequivocally revealed its true colors: its total lack of interest in peace, unyielding rejection of the idea of Jewish statehood, and incessant propensity for violence and terrorism. . . . Tehran is rapidly emerging as regional hegemon, with its tentacles spreading from Yemen and Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea and its dogged quest for nuclear weapons continuing apace under the international radar. Even the terror groups Hizballah and Hamas pose a far greater threat to Israel’s national security than they did a decade ago. Under these circumstances, Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank’s Area C, [the only part still under direct Israeli control], would constitute nothing short of an existential threat.

Nor does Israel need to find a way to stop “controlling other people,” as Gantz put it, for the simple reason that its control of the Palestinians ended some two decades ago. In May 1994 the IDF withdrew from all Palestinian population centers in the Gaza Strip. In January 1996 it vacated the West Bank’s populated areas (the Oslo Accords’ Areas A and B), comprising over 90 percent of the West Bank’s Palestinian residents, and handed control of that population to the Palestinian Authority (PA). . . .

This in turn means that the real dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as within Israel itself, no longer revolves around the end of “occupation” but around the future of eastern Jerusalem and Area C. And since Area C (which is home to only 100,000 Palestinians) includes all the Jewish West Bank localities, IDF bases, transportation arteries, vital topographic sites, and habitable empty spaces between the Jordan Valley and the Jerusalem metropolis, its continued retention by Israel is a vital national interest. Why? Because its surrender to a potentially hostile Palestinian state would make the defense of the Israeli hinterland virtually impossible—and because these highly strategic and sparsely populated lands are of immense economic, infrastructural, communal, ecological, and cultural importance, not to mention their historical significance as the bedrock of the Jewish ancestral homeland

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Read more at BESA Center

More about: Benny Gantz, Israel & Zionism, Two-State Solution, West Bank